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What Messages About Gender Roles Can Be Associated With Toys?

by David B. Ryan

Boys play with plastic soldiers and trucks, and little girls learn to cook on tiny ovens and they love to push baby strollers. Toys taught life roles for children in earlier generations, but modern gender roles no longer restrict kids to specific occupations, but toys can still reinforce these lessons, according to the University of Michigan School of Information. Girls can grow up to join the military and drive trucks, and males may stay at home to raise children. While some toys teach gender roles, adults play an important part in introducing the toys and focusing on gender in instructing kids how to use the playthings.

Early Gender Identification

Children as young as 18 months select gender-based toys and show different types of play when using toys associated with the gender, according to behavioral studies reviewed by a clinical research team from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Toddlers display different levels of play complexity and types of pretend play based on the toy. Children using feminine-typed toys, according to researchers, display nurturing traits and used toys in role play. Kids using masculine-typed toys show high levels of activity and mobility.

Masculine and Feminine Stereotypes

Judith Elaine Blakemore, a psychology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, professor at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willmantic, Connecticut, evaluated popular toys on the market to identify gender typing. The duo found toys marketed for boys, including guns and soldiers, focused on fighting and aggression. The message for girls centered on appearance, including toy jewelry, costumes and play makeup. Other male messages, according to Blakemore and Trawick-Smith, included competition, excitement and an element of danger, but female signals focused on domestic skills. The researchers also found that toys with moderate gender typing for boys tend to encourage academic, artistic and musical skills, while toys with the same moderate gender typing for girls didn't encourage developing any of these traits.

Subtle Messages

Toys designed to challenge stereotypes sometimes have the reverse affect. Pink trucks or a pastel workbench filled with hand tools and blue bake ovens advertised to challenge gender typing sometimes reinforce gender-based views. Girls with the stereotyped male toys in feminine colors understand the concept of challenging society by playing with boy's toys produced in pink. An oven in a neutral color such as orange or green, however, avoids any gender identification that is based on stereotypical feminine or masculine colors. Some toy stores in the United Kingdom addressed the gender-typed toy issue by creating gender-neutral store displays, making it more difficult to apply traditional stereotypes when shopping for toys.

Adult Selection

Adults help shape child views about gender roles by selecting toys that send a distinct message. Fathers who refuse to allow sons to play with dolls and mothers who are insistent on buying fashion dolls for daughters only reinforce gender stereotypes. Parents play a critical role in developing behavior, according to studies reviewed by the University of Nebraska at Omaha research team. Adults who are selecting toys follow specific gender stereotypes, and companies making products to meet demand perpetuate the gender-typing message for future generations.

About the Author

David B. Ryan has been a professional writer since 1989. His work includes various books, articles for "The Plain Dealer" in Cleveland and essays for Oxford University Press. Ryan holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati and Indiana University and certifications in emergency management and health disaster response.

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